Labour's top brass need to show more ambition

The Labour Party's apathetic attitude to the position of general secretary is indicative of a wider

Yesterday morning's scoop by Dan Hodges on Chris Lennie becoming the next General Secretary of the Labour party has sent the blogosphere a flutter. Labour List editor, Mark Ferguson, has argued that a more transparent selection process is necessary. Johanna Baxter has called for the National Executive Committee, of which she is an elected member, to make the decision on the basis of merit. And outgoing Fabian General Secretary, Sunder Katwala, has detailed why the decision will be a test case for the more open approach that Ed Miliband called for in Wales on Saturday. But the most depressing part of Dan Hodges piece is the view expressed by one party official that: "Chris [Lennie] is coming in with one brief and one brief only. Cut costs and sort out the finances. That's it."

If this is true, it shows a remarkable lack of ambition from Labour's top brass on the role of the General Secretary. Sorting the party's finances is absolutely critical but so too is reengaging the party with the public, the subject of Ed's speech on Saturday. As Rachel Sylvester argues in today's Times, political parties "must loosen up or lose out".

Without an advocate in Victoria Street for the "cultural glasnost" that Nick Anstead and I called for in our 2009 Fabian pamphlet, "The Change We Need", Labour will fail to consolidate its recent increase in membership or roll out the best practice in grassroots campaigning which has been seen in a handful of local parties. There are a lot of good ideas bubbling around Labour's grassroots. The Labour Values website documents terrific examples of activist recruitment in Birmingham Edgbaston, community meetings in Blackburn, and effecting canvassing techniques in Bethnal Green and Bow among many others. But this best practice will be lost if the party does not make its roll out to the rest of the country an explicit goal of the party (and therefore of the General Secretary). Indeed, many of the reforms that Ed himself advocates are likely to be lost without someone at the top of the organisation devoted to their implementation.

But even if the cutting of costs and sorting of finances was the only role expected of the next General Secretary it would make little sense to limit the field to a veteran of Victoria Street. The Labour party has struggled with its fundraising since the cash for honours incident. High value donors had been falling away long before some disappeared in protest at Ed Miliband's election, the 1000 club (composed of donors making £1000 contributions per year) is understaffed and therefore not maximising its potential to raise cash, much of the party's additional short money has been wasted on two special advisors for each shadow cabinet member, and the effort to raise cash through online appeals from the grassroots has suffered from a degree of flat footedness especially since the general election. In all of these areas, there is much that can be learned from the charitable sector, from online campaigns, and from the US. Chris Lennie may the best candidate for the job but why narrow the field at this stage?

Important though it was for Miliband to call on Saturday for Labour party conference to be "legitimate in the way its decisions are made", it will be worth nothing if other decisions of critical importance are made behind closed doors. In addition to Mark Ferguson's important list of questions for the party and its leadership, the membership and public have a right to know the criteria for the selection of General Secretary and the composition of the short-listing panel. After going back on his support for an elected Party Chair and doing little to advance the cause of primaries that he used to endorse, Ed Miliband is on shaky ground as someone committed to modernising the party. He needs to act quickly to show that his words on Saturday were worth something.

Will Straw co-edited with Nick Anstead the Fabian Society pamphlet, "The change we need: what Britain can learn from Obama's victory". He writes here in a personal capacity.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.